This volume was the second ever offered in our Classics of Liberty Library, and the reverberations of Paine’s words are ever as urgent and relevant today.
How was it that an Englishman with no formal education beyond his thirteenth year, who in various times of his life had been a corset maker, tobacconist, schoolmaster, and exciseman, became the author of some of the most stirring documents ever written in the cause of freedom? The answer may be found in the curious twists and turns in the life of Thomas Paine, whose vision of liberty for individuals and nations helped defend one revolution in the Old World and shape another in the New.
Paine had known firsthand the poverty and injustice suffered by England’s lower classes. During the second of two stint as an employee in the excise service, in Sussex, he had written an impassioned pamphlet in 1772 arguing for an increase in the meager pay of customs officers. He was summarily dismissed for his efforts and, dodging creditors, eventually made his way to London, where fate led to a meeting with Ben Franklin. The latter, impressed with Paine’s intelligence, character and interest in science, encouraged him to sail for America, which Paine did, arriving in Philadelphia in November 1774.
Through Franklin’s son-in-law, Paine met Robert Aitken, whose Pennsylvania Magazine he helped edit. He also wrote his own articles, largely of a radical bent, among them a condemnation of slavery in America. But the pamphlet that brought fame (or notoriety) to Paine was Common Sense, in which he went beyond mere calls for political reform and urged complete independence of the American colonies from Britain. Published on January 10, 1776, it caused a dramatic public reaction, selling according to some estimates a half a million copies in just a few months. Washington declared that Common Sense had “worked a powerful change in the minds of many men,” and there is no doubt that it had direct bearing on the Declaration of Independence signed that July.
In 1787, Paine returned to Europe to consult with engineers on a design he had for the first iron suspension bridge. While he was in England, the French Revolution broke out, and in response to Edmund Burke’s attack on the uprising, Paine wrote Rights of Man (1791-1792). Within its pages he argued forcefully in favor of remedies for society’s ills, including the substitution of the monarchy with a republic. This resulted in an English court indicting him for treason and permanently banning his book. Paine, however, was on his way to France before the order for his arrest could be issued; still, he was tried in absentia, found guilty of seditious libel, and branded an outlaw.
The trouble caused by Paine’s strong convictions did not end there. While in France, where he had been made a French citizen and elected to a seat in the National Convention, he had incurred the wrath of Robespierre by espousing banishment for Louis XVI rather than execution. Paine was thus imprisoned for nearly a year, beginning late in 1793, and narrowly escaped the guillotine himself. (The Age of Reason, his great deistic work, was written at this time.) Following Robespierre’s downfall, he was released, in large part due to the good offices of Ambassador James Monroe.
Back in America in 1802, the great champion of liberty, in poor health and poverty-stricken, found himself ostracized for his radical politics and his perceived atheism. Thomas Paine died in New Rochelle, New York, in 1809, his obituary in the New York Citizen reading in part,
He had lived long, did some good and much harm.
To this day he remains controversial, but his memory is most eloquently honored in the words of Andrew Jackson, who said,
Thomas Paine needs no monument in the hearts of all lovers of liberty.
Our leather-bound volume has been photographically reproduced from rare editions of 1791 and 1792 and thus preserves the historical authenticity of the originals, including typographical errors and printing irregularities. You can purchase it here.